I've got the will and the time to write - but about what?
February 24, 2007 12:42 AM   Subscribe

Am I crazy to think about trying to find a field or topic to write about purely based on potential popularity? If not, how?

Extended version: writing is the thing I've done most consistently in my life. I feel like I'm okay at it, and could get better if I had more framing and constraints (I tend to ramble in circles, I need clear goals to stay focused and be concise. Cruel jokes about this post to follow). For a while in my life now, I'm in a stage (as a stay at home dad with a manageable part time research gig) that allows for some focus and time on writing as an avocation/maybe vocation?... but I can't decide what to write about. I tried some fiction experiments and that did not go well - I didn't enjoy the process or the product. The form of essays and factual exposition feel most natural to me and I tend to enjoy them the most. But what I've written has sort of meandered around a bunch of different topics with no cohesion or thematic unity.

I'm attracted to the idea of creating a regular writing space, like a blog, and actually trying to promote it, build an audience, and monetize it. But I don't feel a strong attraction to a particular topic. But I question if I'm cut out for popular. I look at things like Digg or del.ico.us' top links of the day and think about writing the next "101 top baseless platitudes to distract you from the need to pull your thumb out" and try to imagine writing that kind of gack and just, ugh. I'm very interested in science (I got a BA in chemistry in the early 90s and follow current events in science), alternative energy, new media, and self-publication/distribution. But these all seem so broad and vague.

So first: in theory (one theory, at least), trying to play to any hypothetical crowd will merely breed falseness and mediocrity. You have to create from the wellspring of genuine fascination. True or false? If I don't feel any special affinity to a subject calling me, should I try to fake it or just give it up?

Or if I reject that, and commit to trying to pick a likely topic or shtick, where to start? How to judge what might go over well, how to narrow it down? I'm clearly destined for a niche rather than a mainstream, but with seemingly infinite potential niches, how do you settle on something with concrete boundaries?
posted by nanojath to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're way more likely to keep up on it if it's a niche that interests you. If there's no one subunit of anything that captures you greatly, why not start as a general chemistry (or whatever) thing and then see if a theme emerges? if not, whatever, there's plenty of market for generality.
posted by crayolarabbit at 1:00 AM on February 24, 2007

Well, with a blog, you don't necessarily need to find your niche for some time. Just start writing. There are many relatively popular subjects within any genre and no doubt you'll eventually settle into a particular area of your own. Hell, the search for your topic is an entire set of posts all by itself.
posted by IronLizard at 2:12 AM on February 24, 2007

Best answer:
Narrowing it down, deciding -what- to write, can be tough. And the answer is... just pick something. Anything. And write it, and finish it. Then pick something else, and do it again. And again. You see, you're not limiting yourself; what you write now doesn't mean you can write about something else later. As you write and finish projects, you'll get more of a handle on what things interest you, what you enjoy writing about most, and what sort of things (as you finish stuff and start shopping it around) sell, and what don't. Why not start with articles for science magazines, or science articles for more 'mainstream' magazines? And if one of those articles inspires you enough to stretch it into a book, go for it!

And thank your stars that you're not one of those people who can't think of -anything- to write!
posted by Rubber Soul at 2:26 AM on February 24, 2007

Ack... what you write now doesn't mean you CAN'T write about something else later...
posted by Rubber Soul at 2:26 AM on February 24, 2007

I only know about blogging, and not all that much about that, but I should say a blog which delivers accessible and authoritative information about a specific field has a number of advantages over a meme zoo or navel-gazing diary, even if that field is not 'popular' in the frothier sense. If your content seems good, people will cite you as a resource or to support their argument on message boards, and you may get links from places like Wikipedia, or even (depending on the field) academic, library or professional sites: this helps credibility as well as pagerank and traffic.

It also helps to be interested, because if you're going to sustain regular writing you need to be motivated. I think it would be hard to keep going if you're merely contributing the 200th different take on the popular viral advert of the day. Granted, if you're doing more serious stuff in a particular field, that will involve a lot of reading, research and fact-checking, but if you pick the right field I think you'll still find it easier to sustain. I absolutely don't think you need a particular angle - in the long run, people value thoughtful objectivity more than the big personality or the colourful rant. Not that a bit of passion is a bad thing, but you want it balanced and rational.

I've never attempted to monetise, but my guess is you wouldn't want to try it too early. Persistence is really important: people don't start to take you seriously for a year or so, unless you're really lucky or some kind of genius.

I'd have thought alternative energy was a great topic, unless there are too many people doing it already (not so far as I know). And reasonably popular in the wider sense, too, actually. I don't think it will seem too broad when you're trying to come up with something new and interesting for your 134th daily post ;)

Good luck.
posted by Phanx at 2:52 AM on February 24, 2007

It seems to me that you can't know in advance whether your chosen topic will fulfil either criteria; ie whether it will prove to fill an as yet unoccupied cyber-niche or whether you'll enjoy writing about it for years and years. I wonder if you have a tendency towards perfectionism? It sounds like you're intent on coming up with the ideal concept before you commit to producing content. Why not simply start with the express intention of having a couple of dummy runs and let the project progress naturally? Don't worry about not starting out on your perfect topic - you can always change it as your skills develop, and it'd be a shame to shoot your wad before you've had the time to bring your blogging skills up to snuff.
posted by RokkitNite at 3:02 AM on February 24, 2007

a blog which delivers accessible and authoritative information about a specific field has a number of advantages over a meme zoo or navel-gazing diary

I second this. You can go for "popular" in the sense of hitting a top 10 list somewhere for some silly thing you wrote. It's a crapshoot. Even if you get lucky, it's extremely unlikely that you will convert those readers into the kind of regular audience that you can make money from. People who come from digg or del.ico.us will run off to chase the next shiny thing just as fast as they came.

If you can become the place to go to for solid information about some topic, you'll build a real audience slowly but surely. I'm still looking for someone that covers solar energy well enough to become part of my daily reading.

On the other hand, you can start a navel-gazing blog and write about what interests you for a while to see where it leads. If you find yourself gravitating towards a particular topic, you can focus the blog on that or start a separate special-purpose blog.

You have to create from the wellspring of genuine fascination. True or false?

True. But initially, your fascination can be as much with the process of creating your own blog and finding your voice as with the specific things you write about. Experiment, do stupid things, don't try to get it right the first time. You'll learn more that way.
posted by fuzz at 3:32 AM on February 24, 2007

Best answer: Let me warn you against writing anything for any length of time for any reason other than your own deep fascination.

As I'm sure you know, any energy you put in to a writing project which genuinely inspires you will come back to you in the rest of your life twofold; similarly, any energy you expend on writing for solely external reasons will drain you in ways that extend well past your relationship with page or screen.

The person who worries about the audience first is a hack. The person who is genuine (and skilled) will find an audience regardless.
posted by poweredbybeard at 8:13 AM on February 24, 2007

"trying to play to any hypothetical crowd will merely breed falseness and mediocrity. You have to create from the wellspring of genuine fascination. True or false? If I don't feel any special affinity to a subject calling me, should I try to fake it or just give it up?"

You phrase your question to reinforce what you obviously want to hear, which is "it's okay to try to make a living writing, even though you aren't driven to write about anything in particular, although you do have vague preferences."

In a general sense, I have no problem telling you that: yes, it's okay.

If you really want my opinion, however, it's a little less rosy.

You may be able to make a living, but you won't be any fucking good unless you can't possibly resist writing (about whatever it is that makes you unable to fucking resist writing about it).

If that's cool with you, then you go, girl, and don't worry about what the hive mind thinks.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:55 AM on February 24, 2007

Ultimately the worst that can happen is you waste your time trying it and turn out not to like it.

You know what we really need, though, if you're just going to sell your talent to the highest-paying niche? Science books for kids. I mean, really engaging, non-textbook, fiction and non-fiction. There's plenty of crap faux-science science fiction - the occasional middle reader accurate-science scrience fiction book just glows, and once you have the librarians and middle school teachers on your side, you can freaking take over the world. Seriously.
posted by joannemerriam at 9:49 AM on February 24, 2007

Best answer: It's extremely hard to make a living as a writer. I'm sure many members here have, like me, published a few book. In my case, they were technical (computer) books, and while my publishers paid me fairly well, at best it's vacation money. I still need my 9-5 job. If you don't have book/magazine contracts, it's even harder. Out of all the thousands of bloggers out there, I'd bet a tiny fraction of a percent makes any money via blogging.

I don't say any of this to discourage you. I'm merely agreeing with others here that, if you want to write, you should write for yourself -- to give yourself pleasure. Maybe other rewards will come, but you shouldn't count on them.

I do agree that it's much easier to write when there are constraints. So why not take the topic you seemed most interested in, Chemistry, and break it down even further? I'm not a Chemist, but I'm sure, as with every field of science, "Chemistry" is an umbrella term. Open the umbrella and find a sub-topic that interests you. If that doesn't do it for you -- e.g. if Brain Chemistry still seems too vague -- then dig even deeper. Dig down to a particular issue or story ("Brain Chemists discover that drinking ammonia creates super geniuses") and, if you can't think of anything original to add to the story, use your writing skills to help me -- a layman -- understand it. (Use Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan as examples.)

Also, you might find books on the mechanics of writing inspiring. Read Strunk and White's "Elements of Style," Orwell's "Politics and the English Language", Zinzler's "On Writing Well" and Plotnick's "Spunk and Bite." Such books make me fall so in love with the craft of writing -- the craft of finding the perfect words and phrases to convey an idea -- that I almost don't care what I'm writing about. I become like an architect who falls in love with the process of designing a building and doesn't really care who winds up living there or what the building is for.
posted by grumblebee at 9:55 AM on February 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's been done. I wish I could find a link to the guy who did it (perhaps my mentioning it will jog someone's memory), but somebody found a subject (something to do with medicine) for which there were highly lucrative Google adwords, and he started blogging about it, with Google ads on his site of course. He had no particular interest or expertise in the subject, but he researched it and wrote about it regularly, and wound up making OK money at it, IIRC.
posted by adamrice at 10:25 AM on February 24, 2007

Response by poster: A few clarifications based on comments - money is not the primary object, and it is not my goal or expectation to "make a living." I've done quite a bit of writing just motivated by my own muse, or whatever, and this seems to lead to the sort of aimlessness and lack of structure I'm alluding to. Obviously the prospect of making money doing something I enjoy is attractive. But there is a reason avocation comes before vocation and monetizing is last on the list of what I'm aiming to do in my description.

Joseph Gurl, I'm really not fishing for the affirmation you assume. I'm very seriously considering giving up writing for any sort of an audience because of the frustration it has caused me. "Give it up" is not a rhetorical option, and I'm not asking anyone to talk me out of it. For many, many, many years all I did was academic writing and keeping a private journal. Literally not being able to stop writing altogether (I've tried), but not finding a kind of appropriate public voice - but feeling a desire to - is kind of the problem at the heart of what I'm asking about.

I appreciate the answers so far.
posted by nanojath at 10:43 AM on February 24, 2007

Best answer: trying to play to any hypothetical crowd will merely breed falseness and mediocrity. You have to create from the wellspring of genuine fascination. True or false?

False, false, false, a thousand times false.

I'm a technical writer. I sometimes find myself having to write about things that are not particularly interesting to me. At this point in my career, I can be more picky (for example, focusing on API documentation for a more technical audience, rather than end-user stuff), but this certainly wasn't always the case. There were plenty of times when I was freelancing that I needed to put food on the table and the only work available was dishwater-dull step-by-step. Yawn.

Well, if you find that you must be interested in something to write well about it, then you either find ways of making dull topics interesting (which helps sometimes, but there are topics where this is impossible), or you get over it. Or you fail utterly at being a writer. (As an aside, I have found that being hungry does have a way of lending ordinarily boring topics a sheen of fascination.)

The definition of a writer is "one who writes," not "one who sits around waiting for inspiration to strike, then writes." If you intend to be a writer at any more than a hobbyist level, you need the discipline to write even when you don't feel like writing. And you need the skill to write convincingly and engagingly about a topic regardless of how enthusiastic you really are about it. If you can do that, then you can eke out a living writing. It is hard work, but it is also an accomplishment you can be proud of.

Do you think Malcolm Gladwell wrote articles about ketchup and diapers because they are inherently interesting and exciting to him? If you think that, you are bound to throw up your hands and say "I could never do that." But no -- he's definitely a big nerd, but not such a nerd that he finds such topics inherently interesting. What he does is he makes them interesting. He knows that below the surface of almost anything, no matter how seemingly mundane, is a vein of surprising detail, people, and stories that can be made into an interesting article, and he mines that vein with diligent research and arranges the precious metal he uncovers into a glittering display for his readers. Gladwell's very good at it, but every writer can and should cultivate such skills to some degree. "I can't do it as well as one of the most prominent writers in the field" is not really an excuse for not doing the best you can.

And you know, I am sure even Gladwell sometimes discovers that something he planned on writing about just isn't really that interesting after all, but writes about it anyway because he's up against a deadline and doesn't have the time to do the research on another topic. Or maybe in that circumstance he finds he has to rush an article he'd only partially researched that he intended to finish later. But I'd defy you to tell me which of his articles this happened with.

Ignore those who tell you that to find success as a writer you must be temperamentally unable to not write, must feel compelled to write. My sister's like that. I am not. It makes it easier, I'm sure, but a good solid work ethic is a serviceable substitute. Sure, writing has to be something you enjoy doing (and I do), but it doesn't have to consume you for you to make it work.
posted by kindall at 11:20 AM on February 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

No offence, grumblebee, but being "so in love with the craft of writing... that I almost don't care what I'm writing about." sounds like a prime recipe for pretentious crap to me.
posted by Phanx at 1:42 PM on February 24, 2007

No offense taken, but could you explain further?

I didn't say "being in love with big, highfalutin words" or "being in love with jargon", I said being in love with "the craft or writing," which I think of as being a nut-and-bolts craft, involving mechanical things like grammar, punctuation and word choice.

To me, the craft is about the opposite of pretension. It's about simplifying and simplifying and simplifying until all the clutter (and needless circumlocution) is gone and all you're left with is the unadorned logic of whatever point it was you were trying to make. It's also about expressing your point as evocatively as possible -- evocatively does NOT mean in a flowery or mellifluously. It means in a simple way that appeals to the five senses.
posted by grumblebee at 4:50 PM on February 24, 2007

Yes, grumble, I'm sorry to have implied that you might write pretentious crap: I understand that when you talk about the writer's craft you mean good things like clarity and cogency, not purple prose. But there seemed to be a view in the thread that good writers care only for their inner fire, and not at all for the reader or the subject matter. I don't think that's remotely true. I'm willing to bet that you personally do in fact think quite carefully about both, and I still think that writing out of pure logophilia would almost guarantee dross.
posted by Phanx at 1:21 AM on February 25, 2007

I agree with you. I think we just have a definitional understanding. The craft of writing is NOT "pure logophilia." Good writing has everything to do with conveying meaning -- conveying meaning as sensually as possible.

It is possible to do that without caring all that much about the subject. It helps if you care deeply about the subject, because if you do, you're more likely to want to convey it clearly and sensually. But one can get into the pure mechanical task of doing this with any subject.

I'm bored to tears by sports. But if I was forced to write a sports story, I'd work hard to make my readers feel the Astroturf, taste sweat in their mouths, etc. And once I start down that road, the craft of writing -- of trying to affect readers on all levels -- starts to interest me.
posted by grumblebee at 11:56 AM on February 25, 2007

That should be "I think we just have a definitional MISunderstanding."
posted by grumblebee at 12:35 PM on February 25, 2007

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